The first time I heard ‘The Runaway’ I got an overwhelming sense of disappointment. As the final track drew to an end I couldn’t remember one highlight from the past 50 minutes. The Magic Numbers aren’t cool (and they certainly aren’t pretty) but up until now they have had a pretty flawless run. Their debut was one of the most overlooked albums of the last decade, and it’s follow-up (whilst being a bit hit and miss) was another winner. To find, on first impressions, that their new album was such a middle of the road, wishy-washy mess made me truly miserable. I couldn’t remember one melody of note, the harmonies seemed completely lacking and the lyrics came across as just plain awful. I wanted to put the cd away in a draw and forget it existed, go back to the brilliant debut and pretend it was 2005 all over again.
Except I didn’t – I went back and gave it another go. It helped that on my second attempt to get into the album the sun was shining and I was in a more relaxed mood. I turned it up loud, determined to pay attention to every little detail, hoping that something magic would pop out. And really it sounded a lot better. I listened again, a third and fourth time, determined that I would discover some of the band’s old charm and songwriting power – and eventually I did. It turns out that ‘The Runaway’ isn’t the bland, muddy mess I initially had it pegged at (well some of it is, but more on that later), it’s actually a pretty lovely album which thankfully defines the term ‘a grower’. First let’s get the bad over and done with…
The album takes far, far too long to get going. It begins with ‘The Pulse’, a mid pace ballad that would work well as a closing track rather than an opener. Then comes ‘Hurt So Good’ which is a fine album track, but again feels misplaced at the start of the record. ‘Why Did You Call’ is as middle of the road as they come, with a sickly disco beat that feels horribly out-of-place, and frankly nonsense lyrics. ‘Once I Had’ is notable only for the fact that it’s slightly more uptempo and makes fine use of an electric guitar but it’s still pretty throwaway. Then at last comes something to be happy about, a song with a discernible, hummable melody. ‘A Start With No Ending’ is easily the sweetest thing on here, and whilst it is insubstantial in almost every respect, it’s fleetness and simplicity is a welcome relief from the bombastic over production that preceded it. But then comes ‘Throwing My Heart Away’, which is essentially Why Did You Call part two – a bit better perhaps, but that isn’t saying much.
Luckily the second half of the record is its saving grace.Tthere is a run of four or five songs that equals anything in the band’s back catalogue. After the interesting, but still boring, ‘Restless River’ comes the fantastic ‘Only Seventeen’ which is the album’s standout track, and in terms of lyrics it’s far and a way the best thing on here. It morphs gently into ‘Sound of Something’ which is the song most reminiscent of old school Magic Numbers (more of that in the future please!). ‘The Song That No-one Knows’ and ‘Dreams of a Revelation’ make glorious use of the late great string arranger Robert Kirby, and here the band sound like the mature group I had expected them to grow into. The album ends with the subtle and atmospheric ‘I’m Sorry’ which fades out with an unexpected horn section.
The album’s’ second half is not immediate and it isn’t breathtaking, but it does have a lot of personality. Thinking about it, this should be the second half to a great album, the subdued conclusion to a first half packed with melody and radio friendly hits – only they forgot to write those songs. Still, If in the past they were often accused of playing it too safe, here they aren’t afraid to experiment or indulge in the unusual. On these four or five songs their sense of adventure pays off handsomely. lyrically there isn’t the same progression though. Whilst their songs have always been rooted in a sense of heartbreak and melancholy here they seem to have lost all sense of perspective. The smart details and sharp observations that made songs like ‘Long Legs’ and ‘Love Me Like You’ so powerful are non existent now, instead the lyrics pile on vague metaphors, rhetorical questions and irritating clichés. Even the best songs suffer because of the lazy lyrics.
I had unfair expectations – I was hoping for a masterpiece, and I got an album that at best can be described with words like ‘pretty’, ‘nice’ and ‘easy going’. The frustrating part is that the band keep repeating the same old mistakes – songs that go on to long, bad sequencing and seemingly no ability to distinguish the good from the bad. The same criticisms that have stalked the band from the beginning are their undoing here. Whilst in some ways ‘The Runaway’ shows great progression for the band, in other ways they seem to be going backwards. Their lyrics, melodies and harmonies (their three greatest traits) are seriously lacking. Overall though there is just enough that works to make this a more than decent album – how you eventually view it depends on a) how much time you’re willing to give it and b) how much you already like the band. If you aren’t a fan to begin with then don’t even bother listening to this one. If however you are a fan, then give it some time and it’s charms will unveil themselves.